Colorado: It takes a village to settle immigrants from Africa

A small town in rural Colorado becomes a model for welcoming a new kind of pioneer.

FORT MORGAN, Colo. — In Nairobi, Kenya, Somali refugee Sahro Farah struggled to feed her family. Now, in this small Colorado town where she runs her own grocery shop, Farah stocks four grades of dates for Ramadan customers.

Abdinasser Ahmed, another African immigrant to Fort Morgan, Colorado, says this ranching and corn-growing hub on the flatlands east of the Rocky Mountains reminds him of small towns back home in Somalia.

Both Khalid Mohamed’s parents were killed in Mogadishu when he was a small boy, a trauma the 22-year-old shies from describing in detail. In 1995, after the deaths of his parents, he fled to a Kenyan refugee camp with an uncle, his grandparents and his five brothers, and from there to the United States in 2006.

The three are among hundreds of recent arrivals in Fort Morgan from Africa, many drawn by jobs at the local beef processing plant. They came over just a few short years ago, starting in 2005 — which, in a town of about 11,000 that remains overwhelmingly white and Hispanic, could have been a recipe for conflict.  However, while some tensions are undeniable, Fort Morgan has become a place where newcomers and old-timers are exploring what identity and community mean, and finding common ground.

In the lobby of their museum and library, the people of this rural Colorado town have erected a larger-than-life bronze statue of a pioneer woman and her children in 19th-century dress. A modern-day pioneer woman, Farah, 29, wears a hijab in a black-and-red poppy print as she stands behind the counter of her high-ceilinged shop just across the street from Fort Morgan's downtown post office.

Like Khalid, Farah first settled in Kenya after fleeing her homeland in the Horn of Africa, which has been plagued by decades of brutal dictatorship and factional fighting and, most recently, rebellion by political Islamists. She lived for 15 years in Kenya, where jobs were scarce, Farah tells Al Jazeera.

Most of the millions of people around the world who have fled persecution and violence end up in camps in countries that lack the resources to absorb them. It can take years for refugees to get permission to go to a third country, and the UNHCR says fewer than 1 percent of them get that chance. To get to the U.S., refugees have to undergo security screenings and interviews. Since 1980, according to government figures, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980 to a low of 27,100 in 2002. In fiscal year 2012, 58,238 refugees were admitted to the U.S.

When Farah finally came to America in 2006, she first settled in Denver, Colorado's capital. After just over a year there, she heard of jobs in Fort Morgan, about an hour's drive east.

At first, Farah worked as a butcher at Fort Morgan's Cargill meat plant for four years.

"It's a hard job," she says of working at Cargill. But it allowed her to save to buy her own business.

Police Chief Takes a Stand

Fort Morgan Police Chief Keith Kuretich in his office.
Matt Slaby/LUCEO for Al Jazeera America

Keith Kuretich, who has been with the Fort Morgan police since 1984 and chief of the department since 2001, says he first realized the African refugees had come to town in 2007, when his department started getting reports about people the callers found suspicious. In a town that was less than 1 percent black in 2000, some thought the groups of African immigrants chatting under the trees outside the post office looked like the gangs they saw on television shows about crime in the cities. There were complaints that Somalis littered and drove poorly.

"We weren't prepared," Kuretich tells Al Jazeera. "Nobody visited and told us these refugees were coming. We had a group of several hundred men, Somali men, just show up."

In the towns where refugees first arrive in the United States, welcomes are often prepared by settlement agencies and volunteers that are practiced at giving local schools and clinics, for example, notice that new users will need their services. But once refugees are settled, they are not tracked, and are free to move where they want.

Kuretich took up the challenge of informing himself, seeking out leaders in the Somali community. The Somali elders told him, for instance, that at home they were used to socializing in public spaces outdoors. Kuretich explained to the elders that littering is illegal, and that the habit of picking up after yourself was reinforced by a public awareness campaign in the United States. He also admitted to them that there still are scofflaws even among the American-born.

The police chief describes this approach as the kind of proactive community policing his officers would use with anyone in Fort Morgan. The Somalis and other African immigrants who followed "are members of the community. They are," Kuretich tells Al Jazeera.

The attention and care Kuretich extended to the refugees included shielding newcomers from potentially explosive slander. In 2011, an email circulated in which a woman was described as accusing two Somali men of attempting to kidnap her children in a supermarket parking lot. The email was widely forwarded, with some senders adding their own feverish speculation about the motives and actions of the Somalis. Kuretich tracked down the original sender. The alleged kidnapping attempt had never been reported to police because, as far as the chief could determine, it had never happened. Kuretich went before the city council, saying that the rumors ranged from unsubstantiated to "completely erroneous," and adding that "harmful words can inflict considerable damage on individuals and relationships — and this damage, unlike the damage of broken bones, sometimes never completely heals."

Kuretich says the locals' wariness was exacerbated in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. "There was some amount of fear in our community," he says. "But that has settled. I'm not saying that all of our community has been accepting. [But] it's more understanding."

WorldDenver, a global affairs organization, regularly hosts foreign government officials, journalists, business leaders and others in Denver and across Colorado under U.S. State Department auspices. Forays outside Denver, the state capital, are included to show foreigners how small-town government works.  In recent years, Fort Morgan has been added to the itinerary, reflecting a global concern with immigration and integration. After touring Fort Morgan, a delegation from Denmark invited Kuretich to make a visit of his own. In Denmark, the chief, on his first trip outside the U.S., described his community policing approach and was treated as an expert on a burning topic in that country. 

Coming to America

Ahmed can imagine the reaction in his Somali hometown of Qoryooley, near Mogadishu, if, say, hundreds of pale, Christian Croats suddenly arrived. So he can understand the concerns among people in Fort Morgan. But he says his neighbors just need to know "we are human beings. We are like them."

In 2002, Ahmed's wife, Ifrah Ader Ahmed, fled Somalia and met him in Egypt, where they first sought refuge.  In 2006 she was granted secondary refuge in the United States, and came to the port city of Houston, Texas.  

Ader found work at the Houston airport. One night after work, as she walked home from the bus stop, she was accosted by a group of men in a car. They shouted what she assumed were insults, though her English was too poor to be sure. They threw a bottle at her, and she was cut by broken glass. Soon after, Ader heard from Somali friends who had found their way to Fort Morgan. They told her there was work at Cargill. And they told her Fort Morgan was safe.

Ader came to Fort Morgan in 2007. Two years later, her husband arrived from Egypt, and joined her working at Cargill. After less than a year wrapping meat, Nasser found a job teaching English to adults at the local community college, and later moved to the school district, where he tutors and mentors the children of immigrants.

"I have a life, I have a family," Ahmed tells Al Jazeera, adding that his three-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter know no home other than Fort Morgan. "It's a small town, a quiet town. I feel secure here."

His wife has not experienced a night in Fort Morgan like the one in Houston when she was injured by broken glass. But Ahmed and his family were here in 2011, when teens used a BB gun to shoot out windows of cars and residences at an apartment house where many African immigrants live. Police investigated the vandalism as a hate crime.

Escape from City Problems

Mohamed says other refugees have described early days of tensions in Fort Morgan. But for him, having just arrived this summer, the town has offered only haven and opportunity.

As a refugee in Kenya, he explains, "there is no opportunity. You finish high school, but can't pay for college. Maybe you marry and have a small shop so you can feed your family."

In 2006, his family came to the United States, settling first in Minneapolis, where Mohamed says they found a large and established Somali population, and big-city problems.

"It was not safe," he says. "We have Somali gangs; you have rival gangs. Those who feel the impact are the newly arrived refugees."

Mohamed’s uncle found a job driving a cab in Minnesota, and tapped into the Somali network to find a safe place for his nephews. They were sent to live with a Somali family near Denver, where Mohamed finished high school before going on to earn a degree in international relations and political science from the University of Colorado.

Denver was an improvement over Minneapolis, and Mohamed says he feels even more at home in Fort Morgan.

"Just walk in the street, you will be greeted warmly. It is amazing," Mohamed says. "I see how kind people are. You can feel it: A sense of community."

Mohamed wants to continue his studies, and Fort Morgan has no university. But for the summer, he has a job helping immigrants with little English apply for jobs at Cargill, Fort Morgan's biggest employer. 

We're not going to change some people's minds. We can just tell our story.

Every day, some 4,700 head of cattle walk into the Cargill plant on their own hooves and leave in pieces, wrapped in plastic and boxed in cardboard. Workers wield sharp knives and operate heavy equipment. The jobs require skill, stamina and strength.  Mohamed said the Somalis he helps, many of them the age of his parents, support large extended families with their wages.

"They send money back home" to Somalia, he tells Al Jazeera. "If they don’t send [it], their families will starve. They have big, big responsibilities."

Mohamed works out of a new Lutheran Family Services office in Fort Morgan. The organization has long experience helping settle newly arrived refugees. The task is slightly different in Fort Morgan, where many of the refugees have lived elsewhere in the United States for years and no longer qualify for the housing and other support offered to new arrivals. Here, Lutheran services include classes to help the refugees apply for citizenship.

The African refugees' arrival started with just a few, in 2005, according to Mary Ginther, head of human resources at the plant that Cargill has run here since 1987. Word of jobs at the plant may first have reached the large refugee community in Minnesota, where the giant agribusiness conglomerate has its global headquarters.  Ginther says Cargill officials at one point were meeting the regular bus from Minneapolis, which arrives in Fort Morgan on Sundays, to hand out welcome kits to new employees.  Managers who wanted to improve communications with the new workers also sat down with Somali elders, learning about their culture. That resulted in a workshop that Cargill, at the request of police chief Kuretich, has offered to police officers as well as to company supervisors. 

Once new workers are settled, Cargill wants to keep them. From the early days when many of their workers were from Latin America, Cargill had learned that one way to retain staff  is to help newcomers settle into town and offer them a chance to learn and be promoted. For two decades, Cargill has worked with Morgan Community College to offer its employees classes in English and job and other skills. Once, students who spoke Spanish as a first language were the main target. Now, students who attend classes on their own time speak more than a dozen languages.

The plant employs more than 2,100 people. Employees come from more than 16 countries, with about two-thirds from Latin America and almost a third from East Africa.

Ginther says some in Fort Morgan cling to the myth that the plant gets federal money for employing refugees, or accuse Cargill of giving foreigners special treatment.

"We're not going to change some people’s minds. We can just tell our story," Ginther says.

Seeking Unity

One Morgan County, a largely volunteer group, was originally established to connect the area’s Latino and white communities. When the Africans began arriving, bringing them into the conversation seemed a natural step.

The group received funding from Colorado Trust, a private grant-making foundation dedicated to building communities in the state, and expertise from the independent Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning.  One Morgan County organizes English and civics lessons, and holds meetings and concerts and food festivals at which newcomers and old-timers can get to know one another.  Its offices are a drop-in center, where people unfamiliar with U.S. bureaucracy can get guidance on how to navigate the department of motor vehicles, hospitals and schools.

Some in Fort Morgan saw the group as putting out a welcome mat they wanted rolled up.

Brenda Zion, Executive Director of One Morgan County, in her office.
Matt Slaby/LUCEO for Al Jazeera America

One Morgan County's executive director, Brenda Zion, whose German-speaking great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe to work in Colorado's beet fields more than a century ago, says she faced resentment among members of the church her family had long attended. She no longer goes to church.

Zion says her family went from laborers to landowners to community leaders in Fort Morgan. While some have welcomed the African immigrants, her own grandparents "did not have a lot of sympathy or empathy for the people who came after them," she tells Al Jazeera. "They kind of distanced themselves from the immigrant story."

Susan Downs-Karkos became familiar with Fort Morgan when she worked for the Colorado Trust. She went on to work for Welcoming America, a national organization dedicated to ensuring that Americans are ready to welcome immigrants.

"The work Fort Morgan has done has informed this whole field," Downs-Karkos tells Al Jazeera.

In September, the White House announced it was honoring Brenda Zion as a "champion of change" for her work weaving immigrants into the fabric of Fort Morgan. While many credit Brenda Zion with ensuring that Africans do not find a completely cold welcome, she herself lauds other leaders: The school officials who hired Somali, Arabic and Swahili translators, and formed after-school study groups that brought Somali and Hispanic immigrants together. The local journalists who took an evenhanded approach to reporting the biggest story to hit Fort Morgan in decades. The police chief who stepped forward to quell rumors that the newcomers were dangerous criminals.

Zion says she sometimes finds the pace of progress in Fort Morgan discouraging, and wonders whether enough people are being reached. But among the moments that have given her hope was the day in her office when a poster was unrolled that had been commissioned to depict her organization's vision for the community. A group of young Somalis who had recently arrived in Fort Morgan was in the office that day, and Zion remembers how thrilled they were to see dark-skinned people in the scene depicted on the poster. Then they started pointing out local landmarks they had come to know, and were just as excited.

"They're starting to see this as home," Zion said. "They are watching the corn grow, just like the rest of us. They know it's planted in the spring, it grows in the summer, and is harvested in the fall. They start timing their year by these things. Just like the rest of us."

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